October 10, 2022

Armchair Psychology at Work – Thought of the Day

Yolande Conradie

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Armchair psychology is when someone without any relevant experience or qualifications gives you mental illness advice. Often, they think they're helping, but in reality, their "diagnoses" can be damaging.

I was reminded of this issue a couple of years ago, and decided to share my observations in the Mind Tools Forum. I asked my fellow coaches and Mind Tools members to share their thoughts and experiences, too. Here's our discussion.

Playing Armchair Psychologist

Some of you will know that I teach a leadership course at the business school of a university. My students are all adults who have been working for at least five years, and they take this course to prepare them for more senior management positions.

During one of our group discussions last year, John X told us how he had learned to handle situations with his senior manager – a "difficult" person.

One of the other students who worked for the same company piped up and said, "John's boss is a psychopath." When I asked her whether he's been diagnosed, and if so, how she knows about the diagnosis, she looked nonplussed.

The truth is, she didn't know. Yet she used a very strong term to describe him – and she believed her own story!

Everyone's an Expert

Over the last few years, we've all become more aware of mental health issues. We also have access to the internet 24 hours a day to find information about anything that piques our interest.

What is worrying is that people read a few articles on the internet about a mental disorder, and suddenly they are experts – especially on psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. They also use terms that they misunderstand to describe someone else's behavior, and in doing so participate in spreading incorrect information and ideas.

Even if a person has read a hundred articles on the internet, that still doesn't make them an expert. They still haven't studied for five or six years, didn't do practicals and didn't write a licensing exam.

Here's the honest truth: most of us have some characteristics in common with Hare's Psychopathy checklist (lying, lacking empathy, playing the victim, impulsive behavior, sexual promiscuity... the list goes on) but that doesn't make all of us psychopaths.

Language Around Mental Health

My story particularly resonated with one of our Forum members, GoldenBoy. He responded: "Yolande, you certainly know how to speak to a guy's heart...

"Some of you'll know that I struggle with mental health. I grew up with the language you describe here, used as normal communication in everyday life. I have found that armchair psychologists are generally fairly insecure and use the language to defend themselves against something they don't understand.

"Through the years, I have observed language change to be less offensive, but the ideology behind the defensive behavior remains.

"I have been a victim of armchair psychology (for example, being told "you're mental!"). My strategy today is to ask them how they achieved that diagnosis, I tell them that I will pass their observations on to my psychologist, as he appears to have missed something. (Sarcasm was also strong in my youth.)"

Like GoldenBoy, if people make random comments in a conversation about psychological disorders, I usually question them about their comments. My intent is not to put people down because they're not qualified and I am, but rather to make them think about what it is they're saying and how damaging it can be.

But to be honest, I think GoldenBoy's sarcastic tactic is justified.

Labeling Can Be Destructive

Mind Tools Coach, Michele, chimed in with her thoughts: "Labeling people, whether it is indiscriminately tagging someone with a mental illness or typecasting someone based on some form of assessment (Myers Briggs, Hermann Whole Brain, Hogan, etc.) appears to have a common root cause; it is a way to diminish or marginalize someone."

The instruments that Michele mentions can be useful, but they have to be taught and facilitated correctly. I often use the NBI in my classes. One of my rules is that it must be a safe space for everybody. That includes never using an outcome as a label, a reason to tease or bully someone, or to put them down.

Sadly, Michele experienced first-hand how damaging it can be when these labels are used to diminish someone:

"When people are insecure and fearful, othering someone is a protective strategy. It props up the ego and reduces the threat. I'll give an example from my own experience.

"Earlier in my career, we administered the Herrmann Whole Brain assessment to the leadership team at an offsite. The Herrmann instrument assesses your brain dominance – right or left-brained. The result of the assessment produces a graphic image and shows where you fall in four quadrants.

"I am off the scale upper right (D quadrant) meaning that I am highly cerebral and synergistic. At the end of the offsite, the team gathered in a circle. The facilitator asked us to choose someone in the circle and share something they learned about the person during the course of the offsite. When I was chosen, the person started off with: "Well, Michele is a ditsy "D" and this explains everything I need to know about her." You can probably imagine how I felt at that moment. I was categorized as scatterbrained in front of the leadership team. This is an example of how quickly people can label and marginalize someone.

"Applying mental illness or psychological labels to people amps up the potential for harm. GoldenBoy's experience describes so well how destructive labels can be."

Don't Diagnose – Learn and Support

So what can people do instead to be more inclusive and to show more care?

Michele believes the first step is to educate oneself. She added, "Approaching a situation with openness and curiosity to understand what's behind the other's thinking is a good one. It provides an opportunity to educate. This said, having to educate someone about their uninformed thinking can be trying. I hope that in the near future, awareness around mental illness becomes mainstream so that those on the receiving end of armchair psychology don't have to adopt the role of educator."

Forum user, April, added her thoughts. She said, "Armchair psychology is something that makes me intensely uncomfortable – especially if the "diagnosis" is followed up by a "you must" statement. Or even worse, "You must just..." If it was that easy, we'd all be perfectly healthy people!

"It's easy to label people or to make them feel othered. It's a bit more difficult and time-consuming to support them in a healthy and mature way."

"It takes mindfulness and empathy to embrace them for whoever they are today.

"It's easy to be dismissive. It's harder work to be caring."

Have you ever experienced armchair psychology? Or do you have other stories to share about people being labeled? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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